Schizophrenic trends in media
At a recent seminar on India-Pakistan relation, a very erudite speaker made a very valid point. He said that we must realise that Pakistan was a drag on our progress and growth and we must learn to be indifferent to matters relating to the terror-sponsoring nation. Now this is easier said than done especially when the North Indian media and Bollywood is so bewitched of happenings in the neighbouring country and matters Pakistan raise such passions across the creative and political quarters.
Therefore I was not really surprised when the leading lights of Indian media, decided to uphold the editorial of Pakistan’s leading daily ‘Dawn’, defending its reporter Cyril Almeida’s report on the differences cropping up between the neighbouring nation’s civil and military establishment following the surgical carried out by the Indian Army commandoes inside Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, as beacon of a brave press.
The ‘Dawn’ report should not be seen in isolation. The day, Cyril Almeida’s story was carried by ‘Dawn’ delineating civilian leadership’s charge against the military establishment, the rival paper ‘The Nation’, which is seen to be closer to the army, carried a report quoting Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif saying that through Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pak army had successfully rooted out terrorist infrastructure and also defeated the residual terrorist elements in the form of facilitators. He was quoted as saying that enemies of Pakistan (meaning India) will make efforts to reverse the gains in the fight against terror, but “their nefarious designs will not be allowed to succeed at any cost.”
It’s also important to note that Cyril Almeida’s report was nothing extraordinary, as newspapers expected to carry stories based on leaks from important government meetings. There was nothing brave about the story and, with no sources named, its tone and tenor clearly reflected that it was no more than, what we call in journalese, a plant. It’s no secret that ‘Dawn’ is closer to Nawaz Sharif’s party than the organisation General Raheel Sharif heads.
While holding the ‘Dawn’ as the beacon of free press, the freedom seeking editors would have done well to go beyond giving a Wikipedia kind of introduction about ‘Dawn’ and reflect on the genre of articles it promotes. It’s one of the most popular articles in the recent times has been “Imagine if Gandhi had a gun”, penned by the newspaper’s New Delhi correspondent Jawed Naqvi. The title speaks for the content.
The rival media groups of Pakistan dutifully carried reports from the perspective of their respective sources in the leadership, and that’s an accepted practise in journalism. However, when it came to coming together on the issue of press freedom when Cyril Almeida’s movement was put on a restricted list, the two rivals stood together. They have also been together in lapping up reports from India which may have caused discomfiture to the leadership in Delhi.
The question which I need to put to the editors bringing out publications from the east of the Radcliffe line is, why should you seek inspiration from ‘Dawn’ about freedom of press and autonomy in the functioning of the fourth estate when we have a very rich tradition of the same.
In fact, the recent developments made me revisit my book ‘Processing News’ (published 2014, National Book Trust), and check if my deductions on the functioning of the Indian media, after painstaking research, still holds ground. The book holds the opinion that the rise and rise of the media industry is a reflection of the growth and maturity of our nation. Our media’s development has largely been driven by the same forces of democracy and liberal politics which have been responsible for the evolution of three other organs of the government– Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.
Unlike the other three organs, the media industry is not dependent on the government grants alone for its sustenance. The culture and functioning of the post-independence Indian governments have largely allowed the existence of not just an independent but very critical media. Though the media houses raise revenue from the government in varying degrees, they also carry on playing their adversarial stand.
The advertising and publicity policies of the government have been so etched that it permits autonomy to media in its functioning to a great extent leaving little scope for it to come under financial pressure which a government may want to bring upon the media houses. However, if some media houses find themselves toeing the government line, it’s largely on account of their secondary businesses. Secondly, the libel laws in our country too are very liberal allowing scope for the editorial freedom of the media houses.
Revisiting the essay after nearly three years, of which two-and-half years has been under the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I find no case of witch hunt of journalists doing their job “in a plain and simple manner” reported in this period. Like past, media persons have continued to have their frequent brushes with the establishments across the states, and that’s how it should be.
An active media would have a brush with the governments, but the more sagacious among the politicians would never use the tool of advertising to target the media houses. Those in government have a lesson to learn from the Emergency. The Press was subjected to censorship by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975. When Emergency was revoked 19 months later, the Indian Press rose like Phoenix, reborn with a new energy and vitality.
And in some situations, where a government still decides to penalise, the media house should have the wherewithal to withstand the cuts in their revenue. We have the examples of Ramnath Goenka and Lala Jagat Narain, taking on the establishment, locking horns despite feeble means.
Thus the whole grouse about not enough media autonomy and lack of freedom is somehow reflective of a perception disorder, characterised by loss of contact with the environment. Yes, there indeed is a perceptible change in New Delhi’s political climate, and some of the editors from being insiders have suddenly become outsiders. They should learn to live with it.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)